Virtual Reality (VR) is a very interesting technology nowadays. It has been extremely expensive to the public, due to the fact that it has been used for many years for military purposes (e.g.: as a simulator of flights). These days, VR is also used for videogame experiences, and surprisingly it is now being used clinically in order to treat mental disorders like Post-Trauma Stress Disorder (we are going to call it PTSD from now on).
Before answering the question of how VR could help PTSD patients, we first must explain what this disease is. And we must commence by saying that PTSD makes living more difficult. Life is amazing and beautiful, but it is not free of fears and anxieties. If we want to be happy, it is completely necessary for us to be able to endure odds and struggle against hardships. Once we overcome those situations, we get stronger. Because that is the way it is – every time we surrender to our fears, mankind can gain the ability of standing up again and learn. However, when we don’t have enough mental strength, difficult situations of our lives will generate traumas in our mind.
There are people out there that they suffer so much that they finally give up, and they cannot find enough strength in order to move forward. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is indeed a terrifying disease that makes people believe that it is always better to run of traumas. And we think it is not an option.
The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (we are going to call it PTSD from now on) is a mental health condition that appears when a person witnesses (or experiences) a terrifying event. It can create terrible scars in the person’s mind, as flashbacks of those terrible experiences can cause severe anxieties in the individual.
It is very common for those patients to have intrusive memories; avoidance of what originated their traumas; negative changes in their mood and variations and in their physical and emotional reactions towards other people.
Avoidance of their traumas is when the patient chooses to not face the trauma that is damaging him and is blocking him of going forward with his life. A rape survivor could avoid going out on dates for fear that she will be attacked again. And veterans suffer of avoidance in the majority of cases, because they are not able to fully re-adapt themselves to society again due to the horrible murder experiences they witnessed during war.
What truly matters is that if not treated, the person’s trauma could interfere with his quality of life. This is why PTSD can block a person’s mind and force him to live a life or fear. Not learning of those experiences by avoiding them can be even worse, because sometimes is better to face the situation and learn from it. This is the way in which they can overcome their anxieties.
One method that can be used in order to treat PTSD is the Exposure Therapy. Its goal is to help reducing a person’s fear and anxiety, or even being able to eliminate it in order to improve his quality of
life. In order to be effective, the person must confront a situation that is close to its worst fears. And this is when VR shows its true potential against this avoidance of traumas.
A new therapy for PTSD is being applied in order to combat those mental problems: the VRET (Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy). It consists in make veterans of war experience 3D graphics in which they have to simulate scenarios in which they must take action against several threats in a fictional war scenario. VRET allows psychiatrists to treat PTSD in an innovative and effective way.
The main benefit of VR in those studies is that VRET allows traumatized people to put themselves into a context in which they must confront their fears, eliminating the possibility of avoiding their traumas again. VR war simulators can modify a lot of aspects of the fictional scenario, like the realism of sounds of the environment, degree of explosions, and time of the day – the more aspects that could be simulated the better, because VR is never going to simulate the exact situation of what happened to the patient. But fortunately, it doesn’t need to.
Exposure therapy targets behaviors that people avoid in response to thoughts, memories or situations that provoke anxiety or fear on them. Thanks to VRET, soldiers are going to receive many stimuli in the simulation and it is going to allow to the patients to face in a fictional situation in order to improve their real lives. Using VRET on veterans of war of Vietnam and Afghanistan, they could overcome their fears to the point that many of them experienced a reduction in their TSD symptoms.
What is really disappointing is that VRET is a very expensive technology. It needs to be more widely available in clinics, but right now it is not. What we know for now is that VRET is very effective way to reduce PTSD symptoms, and we hope it could get more available for the people who need it in the future. The traumas of the mind are indeed a dark and scary place, but if we face our terrors, we are going to be able to cure diseases like PTSD someday. And VR is giving us a great opportunity this time.